Of globs and blubber

This charming image - of a priest no less - had me searching all kinds of strange photos to illustrate it.  The deep fat fryer won the day. 'He was so fat that globs of blubber formed cocoons around his eyes.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last...

As big as …

A vivid way to vaunt the vastness of vine-fruit. 'The grapes seemed as big as twelve-year old boys.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), p. 502 Photo credit: Free-Photos at...

As vindictive as…

Apologies to all camels if this sullies your good character, but I liked the simile and had fun finding a photo of a camel who might be described as having a vindictive look. '... vindictive as a camel.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation,...

Of smoke and goats

A refreshing image for a choking smoke.  I tried to find a picture of goats who looked as though smoke might be getting up their nose. 'The smoke was so thick that the goats sneezed seven miles away.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation,...

All the doors of Israel

It's now a month since I read this book and I still have a burning impression of dazzling light and heat. Here the sun is stalking the Israelites like a lion. The sun came out of the desert like a lion and beat at all the doors of Israel.  See also his...

See me, pity me

Simeon is one of the strongest, most dynamic characters in this vibrantly retold story of Christ's life.  He is Jesus' uncle and the rabbi of Nazareth, and is hanging on to life by sheer force of will because God has told him he will see the Messiah before...

Someday the history of metaphor will be written and we shall at last grasp all the truths and misconceptions in which this intensely speculative subject abounds.  

Source: Jorge Luis Borges, On Writing, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2010, p. 45

Metaphors and similes are an imaginative galaxy which greater minds than mine have explored. That doesn’t stop me gathering dazzling and original examples to enrich the common stock and enliven human exchange, expanding the choice of vigorous and beautiful ways to sharpen how we think, read, write and speak.

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Stars as pearls

Strings of star-pearls draped around a beauteously bejewelled night! 'The stars were strings of pearls around the neck and arms of the night.' For another pearly metaphor, see this from Virginia Woolf's Orlando.   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans....

Yeast needed

Liked this way of portraying a skinny, hollowed out man - made without leaven, flat as a pancake. 'A hairless, cross-eyed man with a sharp skinny snout jumped up. He looked as though someone had forgotten to add the yeast when he was kneaded.'   Source:...

God’s royal artery

A compelling way to single out a great river and to map the world's waterways - as so many veins and arteries of their maker. This is part of an alarmingly vivid dream which troubles the crucifix-making son of a carpenter. 'And flowing from one end of the...

The Promised Land

What makes for a promised land?  Name the elements you would choose.  This one has three timeless components, and is rosy-dawn luminous. '... the Promised Land, made up of dew, wind and age-old human desires, and illuminated like a rose by the dawn.' See...

Wrinkled like a raisin

It's obvious when you read it, but we don't tend to use 'wrinkled like a raisin' despite its pleasing alliteration. Let's try to change that! 'A tiny old man, slim, and wrinkled like a raisin, had stood up on tip-toe.' For another view of an old man, and...

Vigorous and well-preserved

A surprising way to describe an old man's forehead, having the roundness and roughness of an oyster shell.  Or might it be alluding to the sand-polished inside smoothness of the shell? 'He was well-preserved and vigorous for his age, and had a forehead...

The Land of Canaan

Kazantzakis seems to have studied - absorbed - the places of the Bible, bringing individual landscapes and particularities vividly to life. I can't recall a land being likened to air, rendering it ethereal and haze-shimmering. '... the Land of Canaan, like...

Of struggle and triumph

This terrific, vital novel was written by Kazantzakis, author of the more famous Zorba the Greek, to share the story of a man who struggled and won.  It seems to have been intended to reassure us that whatever we might struggle with in this life, including...

A star hanging in the east

This novel burns with the heat of the desert and I like this single star's fiery amplitude. '... a single star, large like a mouthful of fire, hanging in the east.'   Source: Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation, trans. P.A. Bien (London: Faber and...

The desert of Idemea

Lovely likening of the heat-haze quivering of a desert to the rippling pattern-dappled back of a leopard. 'To the south, the quivering desert of Idemea shifted like the back of a leopard.' See also his leonine metaphor for the merciless Biblical sun.  ...

Like a surgeon’s knife

Adam Bede is so far from being like a timid woman that this is striking, and Eliot uses the idea of recoiling from a surgeon's knife to convey the anguished passivity and powerlessness of a powerful, active man when confronted with a wrong he can't act to correct. As...

To listen as to a recurrent music

What a beautiful description of listening out for someone's voice.   Despite Adam's listening for her voice so, it doesn't yet occur to him that he might fall in love with her. And voices, how memorable, individual and yet evanescent they are!  When you remember the...

Fate waiting in the wings

All aglow, this bright afternoon when two characters cross paths, blush, and entwine fates.  Impossible to have any intimation on such an afternoon that it could lead to disaster.  Only the writer senses it, and tries to warn the reader. It would have done no good to...

Departing hope

A grimly compelling way to evoke a louring sky.  Compare this 'departing hope' with Vasily Grossman's description of the rising sun like a burst of hope. 'Under a leaden-coloured sky, with a narrowing streak of yellow, like a departing hope.' Source: George Eliot,...

Worrying like a butter churn

You've surely spent moments and even nights of your life in mind-churning worry, as described here by a women who knew what she was talking about as she managed her own butter churns and other dairy paraphernalia. ‘... and worret myself as if I was a churn wi’ butter...

As wise as …

George Eliot's Adam Bede has two characters who use language vibrantly and robustly, one of whom is the proud and capable farmer's wife, Mrs Poyser.  Here is what she has to say of men who sit in the pub boozing: as wise as cod fish with red faces. I've never seen a...

Prize apples and withered crabs

A vivid juxtaposition of a ruddy, healthy, good-natured farmer and a slim and slippery old squire. 'As he stood, red, rotund, and radiant before the small, wiry, cool, old gentleman, he looked like a prize apple by the side of a withered crab.' Source: George Eliot,...

Of pig’s squeals and bugle tunes

My favourite uncompromisingly demanding schoolmaster, Bartle, side-swiping someone who praises their own use of language. ‘The right language!’ said Bartle Massey, contemptuously.  ‘You’re about as near the right language as a pig’s squealing is like a tune played on...

Steel rod and iron bar

Arthur has the upper hand socially, although morally and physically he is no match for Adam.  But he won the girl Adam loved, for being almost as pretty and flighty as she. 'And Arthur must sink under a well-planted blow of Adam’s, as a steel rod is broken by an iron...

Knitting as twittering antennae

Fast-moving knitting needles clicking and flicking like a crab's antennae. 'Knitting with fierce rapidity, as if that movement were a necessary function, like the twittering of a crab’s antennae.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)),...

The embers of resentment

How many families or other relationships does this describe?  The embers of resentment suddenly fanned into flame by a passing question or comment?  Pernicious and pointless.  I believe it was Mandela who said that resentment is like swallowing poison and hoping it...

Like ladies’ fat dogs

Here is the marvelous farmer's wife Mrs Poyser, always straight to the point and with an opinion, richly expressed, about everyone and everything.  I loved this dismissal of upper class servants being like ladies' fat dogs, only for show, and useless for anything...

Like a recovered joy

What a beautiful notion, a recovered joy, and as a description for the reappearance of the sun's warmth!  It reminds me of Vasily Grossman's description of the rising sun being like a burst of hope. May you be sun-blessed with recovered joys and bursts of hope. 'The...

Instinct with poetry

A fine and subtle way to depict a look which appears to express more than the person looking is capable of feeling. And I've always been struck when I come across commonplace proverbs and phrases in their original setting, and see how readily they are used by people...

Of husk and nut

Lisbeth, Adam Bede's mother, is both proud and jealous when she senses her son slipping away from her, and she chides him for it, describing him as a ripe nut casting her off like an old husk.  A neat simile, though untrue in this case. ‘She’s nought but th’ old husk,...

A smile like wine

A beautiful use of wine to describe the effect of a smile on a man who loves.  It comes at the end of half a page in which Eliot intricately unravels the games Hetty can play with the hearts of others.  Pretty and pettish and petty, this girl.  Her smile is nothing...

An ounce of knowledge and sixpence of snuff

I love the imperial disdain of this village schoolmaster for those who come to the classroom thinking knowledge is a commodity to be bought by the sixpence worth, like snuff and stuff. 'But I’ll not throw away good knowledge on people who think they can get it by the...

As wise as …

As many court fools were dwarfs, and fools could be wise, I was struck by this reference to being as wise as a dwarf. 'Though looking all the while as wise as a dwarf with a large old-fashioned head and body on the most abbreviated legs.' Source: George Eliot, Adam...

An empty head for the devil to dance in

Bartle Massey runs a night school with a will of iron, and thinks precious little of the half-baked students who turn up to acquire a bit of accountancy. 'And all the while his needle would be going just as fast as if he left his head empty for the devil to dance in.'...

Like an ant carrying a caterpillar

Here the kind and honest Adam Bede goes a-wooing, offering to help Hetty carry a heavy basket.  She's indifferent to his gallantry, as Eliot puts it, not giving two hoots for the details of ant life. ‘... and been as long getting to the house as a little ant carrying...

Of sunlight and apricots

George Eliot refers here to the joy of childhood which we often don't remember consciously, though it is woven into our nature in the same way that an apricot is imbued with the sunlight that ripened it. A delicious, warming metaphor, particularly if you have a soft...

Gutter thinking

This is Bartle Massey, he of the blade-sharp tongue, laying into the so-called students who come to him for learning. 'You go whistling about, and take no more care what you’re thinking of than if your heads were gutters for any rubbish to swill through what happened...

As the acorn cup fits the acorn

Adam Bede is talking with the woman he loves about the woman he will one day love.  First he didn't like the cap she wore as a Methodist preacher, but then he saw her again and found it suited her face perfectly.  He didn't yet know that he would eventually fall in...

Like frost and flowers

An alternative alliteration for describing people as being like chalk and cheese.  Feel free to use it to inject some variety into your phrasing. 'Him and th’ old Squire fit one another like frost and flowers.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin,...

Like a stealing sunbeam

This is as near as upright Mrs. Poyser gets to admitting she's pleased as punch by a compliment just received.  I liked the alliterative 'stealing sunbeam'. '… but a quiet complacency overspread her face like a stealing sunbeam…' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede...

Give me Irwine every time

A fine pair of metaphors for the differing effects of two men's company - no doubt with whom I'd rather spend an evening, chatting in front of the fire. 'Mr Irwine was like a good meal o’ victual, you were better for him without thinking on it, and Mr Ryde was like a...

Ribbon when the colour’s gone

Mrs Poyner offering up her pithy view of many wives in the neighbourhood, during a good-natured discussion with her husband.  He settles their difference of opinion by assuring her he married well. 'The poor draggle-tails o’ wives you see, like bits o’ gauze ribbin,...

Frivolity folly

This describes pretty Hetty utterly unprepared, and incapable of becoming prepared, for mature, meaningful relationships.  It's also an early intimation of the compassion and succour Dinah will later bring her. 'Like a child hugging its toys in the beginning of a long...

Beware the Bartle blade

Bartle has much learning and little patience with fools or slouchers.  As an example of that cutting tongue, here is what he thinks of university as a means to educate people:  'He says college mostly makes people like bladders - just good for nothing but t' hold the...

As poor as…

Never thought of rats as being poor, but I like the simile, more compelling than the standard 'as poor as a church mouse'.  At least the mouse has a big house. 'If I were as poor as a rat...' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p....

Wishy-washy Arthur

Mrs Irwine's all too insightful summary of Arthur's strength of character. 'She thinks your lady-love will rule you as the moon rules the tides.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 216 Photo credit: fapro1 at...

As hard as…

Mrs Poyser has strong and generally accurate opinions about the people around her, and she nails Hetty's character in a few lines.  I love pebbles, but not hearts that have their hardness. “It’s my belief her heart’s as hard as a pibble (sic).” See another simile for...

Like ice in a warm ocean

I wish any fears you have, any yearning anxieties, may so melt away.  This is the fine-charactered Dinah, whose quiet strength and warmth comes to the fore in the course of the book. 'Then gradually her fears, yearning anxieties for others, melted away like...

A look of love

This is Lisbeth, mother of Adam Bede, looking closely at the beloved face of Dinah, who would become her daughter-in-law.  She looks for an affirmation of gentleness and purity, which she finds.  Elsewhere, George Eliot describes Lisbeth herself as being 'clean as a...

Clean as a snowdrop

We're edging towards snowdrop time, their pristine pendant-petals peeking through the mud and cold, like tiny bright lanterns lighting the way to spring. Here it is Lisbeth, Adam Bede's mother, who is said to be as clean as a snowdrop.  A later reference has her in...

Peaches rolling together

A delicate and charming way to convey mutual attraction.  It sounds so soft, so harmless and so sweet, yet it presages disaster for the one and shock for the other. 'Such young unfurrowed souls roll to meet each other like two velvet peaches that touch softly and are...

As hard as …

I like this simile for an implacable nature, though in this case, let us mention that Poyser is only implacable in the face of bad farming.  In many other respects he is kind and good-natured.  Later, when he is facing the consequences of others' behaviour, he is in...

Like morning on the flowers

Such a gentle, loving look this implies, but in the end neither of the two lovers wants to take the consequences of their actions. '... whose eyes rested on her like morning on the flowers.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 195...

As bad as…

A useful simile for when you want to be left in peace. 'As bad as buzzing insects that will come teasing you on a hot day when you want to be quiet.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 200 Photo credit: maxgrafix at...

Flittering superficiality

A sweet way to convey an incapacity for empathy in a self-involved giddy girl.  A butterfly goes about its business, meaning no harm, but oblivious to those around it. 'Young souls, in such pleasant delirium as hers, are as unsympathetic as butterflies sipping...

The influence of climate

In an age of climate change and more extreme 'weather events', this hits home harder than it might have before. 'It was like the influence of climate, which no resistance can overcome.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p. 156...

A picture of the sun

How to convey the impossibility of a person's love being requited! 'He could no more stir in her the emotions that make the sweet intoxication of young love, than the mere picture of a sun can stir the spring sap in the subtle fibres of the plant.' Source: George...

Borne on the evening breeze

In the midst of winter, on a drab-draped day, the memory of flower-garden odour borne on an evening breeze is warming. 'With an odour like that of a flower-garden borne on the evening breeze.' Source: George Eliot, Adam Bede (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985 (1859)), p....

A pretty primrose

Such an original way to convey heart-stopping loveliness, physical that is.  One of the twists of the story is that the girl's radiant beauty encases a petty, giddy, shallow little soul. 'While she set off the pale fragrant butter as the primrose is set off by its...

Crowding the canvas of life

George Eliot can pack a punch - rarely have human beings been so summarily dismissed as pointless wash outs.  May you never have to sit next to such a Miss Irwine and make polite conversation. 'The Miss Irwines were quite superfluous existences, inartistic figures...

The soul as musical range

One of the finest phrases in Chinese is zhi yin, which means 'knower of your music', used to describe someone who understands you deeply, and by implication, a soul-mate.  In a similar vein, Eliot uses musical range and vibration to convey the limits of some souls and...

Brook-bathed pebbles

What a simple idea, your thoughts like pebbles being washed by a brook.  As an inveterate pebble pusher, this humble notion attached to something as grand as the thought of God, is heartening. 'It seems as if I could sit silent all day long with the thought of God...

Nature like an athlete

How wonderful to portray nature beefing herself up to wrestle with winter, stripping off all superfluity such as leaves, the better to grapple with cold and frost. 'Nature now, like an athlete, begins to strip herself in earnest for her contest with her great...

Ice like …

A limpid description of bright, icy water, distillation of winter. 'In the center of large ponds, beneath the surface of the water, gleam cores of aquamarine ice, like the constricted heart of winter.' See also my bestellar review of this wonderful book, complete with...

A winter warmer

Nothing like it, climbing under a meringue-like eiderdown on a freezing winter night, and sleeping off all fatigue. '... an eiderdown like a giant meringue.'   Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts: On foot to Constantinople: from the Hook of Holland to the...

Faded colours of an old fresco

An unusual metaphor for the slow mood change effected by months of winter weather – like cold water thrown at a faded fresco to bring out the colour. ‘These changes in humour and disposition, here described all at once, were in themselves a series of delicate...

Vast moon-spider

Something wonderfully round and opalescent about these glowing pearls likened to the pearly eggs of a 'vast moon-spider'. '... so that her pearls glowed like the eggs of some vast moon-spider.' For another pearly metaphor, see this in Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last...

Varied like an ocean floor

And the more we learn about the ocean floor, the better it seems as a metaphor for variety.  Curious to think of Virginia Woolf using this since so much less was known of ocean floors in her lifetime and they didn't have the incredible underwater images we now enjoy....

Plump with meaning

When there is substance behind them, the most ordinary words acquire meaning, and so satisfy the senses as ripe nuts falling in the lap of a hungry man might satisfy hunger. This idea of commonplace words placed uncommonly and so providing nourishment for the mind or...

Our many selves

This short discourse on our fragmented and multiplicitous selves struck me, and their resemblance to plates piled on a waiter's hand conveys something of the precarious state they can create in the single person accommodating them all.  Later on, Orlando manages to...

Like silver-headed nails

Dots and gleams of silver brightness resembling nails?  This is an unusual image. 'The road shone like silver-headed nails...' Source: Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, ed. with an introduction by Rachel Bowlby (Oxford: World's Classics, 1992), p. 285 Photo...

A quickening of senses

Orlando does in fact travel through a time tunnel for hundreds of years, so this is less of a metaphor than it seems. The real metaphor lies in that quickening of his - by now her - senses as if a tuner had keyed her nerves to tautness as tightened piano wires. '......

Blotted images and spotted mirrors

An original way to convey a flawed image, likening it to the spots you used to find on old mirrors, which would transfer themselves to any face reflected in the glass. May your happiness and your dreams be unsullied. 'Hail, happiness, then, and after happiness, hail...

Like drops of scalding water

Curious to use 'scalding', suggesting she was happy to have the present fall away from her, that in some respect it had been burning her.  It's a good image for being freed of something which has injured you. 'The present fell from her like drops of scalding water.'...

Thought like a risen moon

This one puzzles me a little - the moon a sheet of silver calm yet the water turbulent, which would discombobulate the image of the moon on the water. 'And whenever she thought of him, the thought spread round it, like the risen moon on turbulent waters, a sheet of...

Bright as lamps, haggard as …

Never thought of dawn as being haggard, though an insomniac crawling into it after a restless night might be.  'Bright as lamps' is obvious but we never use it. May your eyes be bright and may you never feel haggard as dawn. See also examples of lamps as luminous...

Like a housemaid’s fancies

A delightful way to convey disorderly thoughts, and I like that 'languishing and ogling'. '... she could scarcely keep her ideas in order.  They were languishing and ogling like a housemaid's fancies.' Source: Virginia Woolf, Orlando: A Biography, ed. with an...

Genius as lighthouse beams

An interesting metaphor to describe the haphazard workings of genius, appearing like a beam illuminating the surrounding darkness at intervals, but without the pulsing regularity of the lighthouse.  And in between their dazzling flashes, the genius withdraws into...

Like underwear on a washing line

Two things caught my attention: firstly, the way a small, single, commonplace action, such as sitting down and preparing to write, can trigger a tumble of thoughts and impressions, and secondly, the surprising translation of those cascading ideas into the underwear of...

As slim and blithe as…

Here's Orlando fast forwarding to imagine how his blithe, slim darling might appear at 40.  I liked 'slim as a reed' and above all, 'blithe as a lark'.  May you be so, whatever your age. And he did see her again, centuries later, and she had indeed grown unwieldy....

Slung like an orange

A rare sight in London - the sun slung in the sky like a blood orange, let alone hanging from the cross of St. Paul's.  It must have had the visual impact of an omen. 'He was recalled, turning westward, by the sight of the sun, slung like an orange on the cross of St....

Hook, line and sinker

Orlando did in fact fall hook, line and sinker, so the metaphor of being hooked through the nose and dragged through the waters isn't far off, particularly given that Sasha never quite appears to be in love with him. But Sasha is enigmatic and we never hear her story...

As soft as …

Orlando names his lover 'Sasha' ostensibly because she is Russian and so was the white fox he had as a boy.  But note what follows the description of this beautiful fox (for surely it was beautiful) as being 'soft as snow' - its teeth of steel bite him so savagely his...

Eyes like (II) …

Another unusual description of eyes by Virginia Woolf, as Orlando tries to confirm the gender of the girl he is falling in love with.  And what do such eyes look like?  Soulful and mysterious? See also her description of Orlando's eyes. 'No boy had eyes which looked...

Eyes like …

I have never seen violet eyes, though I have a recollection of someone describing Elizabeth Taylor's as being of this colour.  But 'drenched violets', how enchanting those must be! See also Woolf's description of Orlando's lover's eyes. '... we must admit that he had...

Like quicksand beneath a monument

Orlando's love for Sasha is always on such shaky ground as his passion and jealousy and her apparent infidelity and coolness wreak havoc with his emotions. 'The doubt underlying the tremendous force of his feelings was like a quicksand beneath a monument which shifts...

As motionless as …

I have tried to think of standard similes for stillness, and 'statue' is an obvious one, here morphed into a figurehead. Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, introduction by Michael Gorra, New York: New York Review of Books, 2006...

A table laid by ravens

Leigh Fermor describes the unexpected hospitality and kindness encountered in the Mani after having been warned that his throat would more likely be slit. I found this description of meals appearing quite magical, as if ravens were waiting on you. I was also surprised...

Heat like a casserole

One of many descriptions of staggering heat and light in the Mani. 'The stone flags at the water's edge ... flung back the heat like a casserole with the lid off.' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, introduction by Michael Gorra,...

As miraculous and consoling as…

I wish you some miraculous and consoling intimations that feel like Helen's hand laid across your brow. '... an intimation as miraculous and consoling as the hand of Argive Helen laid across his brow...' Source: Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern...

A face fashioned from waste

This astounded me with its originality, even to think of the waste material that might accumulate under the claws of an old lion.  Surprising also was that when I looked at the notes made while reading this magnificent novel, I only found a few metaphors, though of...

Thick with time

This conjures for me a heat-shimmering visibility to the normally invisible air, providing a sense of density that you can imagine being imbued with time. 'The air was dense and shimmering, thick with time.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and...

A flood of invective

For me, more striking is the explosive element of the woman's invective, its eruption rather than the splashing and rolling around that comes in its aftermath. 'As he said that, the woman started to curse in a flood of obscene invective that rolled over and around him...

Silence seated with a finger to its lips

A sinister silence this, not an absence of sound, but an agent in its own right. 'The silence sat down with them like an invisible creature with its finger to its lips.' Source: Russell Hoban, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (London: Picador, 1979), p. 166...

Spreading like ink across blotting paper

This image is used by Leigh Fermor to describe the speed and flow of Slavs into a region.  Although I played the game of Grandmother's Steps as a child, I had never heard it called by this name before and had to look it up.  I remember it as being called something...

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